Right to strike rule a roadblock in Alberta farm labour changes

A group working through details of Alberta’s farm and ranch workplace safety legislation, also known as Bill 6, has agreed to disagree on whether unionized farm workers should be allowed to strike.

The labour relations round­table, one of six working groups appointed by the provincial government to work out details of Bill 6, found no consensus on that issue and several others, so it will submit its results to government for consideration.

“There’s nothing more to discuss. Labour has a position. The ag community has a position. We’re at opposite ends of the football field,” said committee member Terence Hochstein, executive director of Potato Growers of Alberta.

Unionization and the possibility of a strike affecting livestock and food safety proved an insurmountable issue.

“Of course when we started thinking about care of livestock and timeliness of bringing crops in and putting crops in the ground, the concern of employees striking would be a big issue. We really struggled to agree on that,” said Mark Chambers, a manager in Sunterra’s hog operations who also sat on the committee.

“Obviously, the producers thought there was nothing wrong with being able to assemble and collectively discuss and things like that, but to start having the right to strike would be hugely problematic.”

There were 12 people on the Labour Relations Code committee, nine of them directly involved in agriculture.

Chambers said he found it difficult to gain the understanding of the other three members — two labour lawyers and a union executive.

“Some of them thought that we could choose when the sows farrow because we choose when to put the boar in. Well, it’s really nothing like that.”

Some ground was gained when Chambers pointed out that farm workers could be jailed for neglecting animals, which could occur during a strike.

The committee then agreed that if irreversible damage to livestock or crops was likely to occur in the event of a strike, the government could step in to stop it.

However, producer members of the committee rejected the concept of farm workers’ striking at all, said Chambers.

He and Hochstein agreed unionization would affect farm culture.

“On a lot of farms, your workers are your family or are treated like family…. It’s just a culture where we’re concerned about their safety, their well being. Their kids are our kids, type thing,” said Hochstein.

In establishing a union, “you’ve lost that relationship. You’ve lost that trust that the majority of ag producers work very hard to create.”

Chambers said producers on the committee went on record as recommending farmers and farm workers be exempt from labour code regulations, but other members rejected it.

They also suggested the Ontario model, the Ontario Agriculture Employees Protection Act, be used in Alberta. It gives farm workers the right to assemble and negotiate but not strike.

However, Hochstein said labour members on the committee said that act is unconstitutional, a position reiterated on the Alberta government website outlining Bill 6 consultations.

Committee members did agree on the need for government to educate farm and commodity groups about the specifics of Bill 6 once finalized.

They also agreed that family members who work on the farm should be excluded from any union formed.

As well, members agreed that the Labour Relations Board should include a representative from the agriculture industry and that the entire board should educate itself on the sector so it can render credible decisions.

Ultimately it came down to the same major block, said Chambers.

“We worked through this to try and put things on the table but basically it came down to, there was a predetermined outcome from the government that basically, you’re going to have to live with the Labour Relations Act.

“They basically said, is there anything in there that’s non-livable? Well, basically the thing that’s non-livable is the right to strike. That is a huge risk for producers that care for livestock and you’ve got cropping with seeding time and harvest time and spraying time. If you don’t get those things right, food goes to waste…. You put the food chain at risk, and all of a sudden you could have problems in the food supply chain.”

Labour Minister Christina Gray said lack of consensus by the committees working on Bill 6 will be managed.

No timeline has been offered for final details.

“We really want these groups to use the full amount of time that they need, so some meetings will continue through into December,” she said. “As all tables start to complete, then we’ll be talking to Albertans about what the results of those working group tables were, and the next steps.”

Chambers said he doesn’t know how the government will respond to the committees’ work.

“At the end of the day, the government will choose to either listen to the information they’ve been given or they will choose to completely ignore it and do what they want. I think if that came to light, that the government ignored those recommendations, I think it would be actually a huge problem.”

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